Please Don’t Make Me Answer the Phone!

My first days of work at the yeshiva were anxiety-inducing because:

a) I actually wore pantyhose?

b) I broke a kosher rule immediately and felt embarrassed?

c) I was petrified to answer the phone because the people on the other end weren’t speaking English?

d) I was behind on getting my elder care certification?

As the title of the post reveals, it was most certainly…all of the above. But mostly C.

My very first phone call was from a woman speaking incredibly quickly. I thought I heard her ask something about Mishloach Manos but that term meant nothing to me. So I ran to my woman boss: “Umm, there’s someone on the phone asking about something like Mishloach Manos–does that mean anything to you?” Then someone called to say he wanted to give a Yahrtzeit donation. Then another called because he didn’t receive a receipt for his Yizkor donation. And all of these people, in addition to using words I’d never heard, were all sucking on marbles. What should have been sentences made up of individual words were instead long run-on phrases like Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious spoken with an east-coast tinge of anger and impatience and delivered with the energy of Dementors.

And it was just as bad with visitors, whose mouths I could see opening and closing but whose words I could not comprehend. Ancient men came from towns all over Europe collecting on behalf of their charities. They all knew Rabbi and asked for him by name. (I will henceforth call the head honcho Rabbi either just “Rabbi” or “my Rabbi” to distinguish him from the multitude of other Rabbis at the school–and because it makes me chuckle to act as if I have a Rabbi of my very own. I would find it just as funny to have a priest or pastor of my own, for the record.) That part–Rabbi’s name–and only that part, I understood. I would escort the men into Rabbi’s office and there would be an eruption of conversation that sounded like German mixed with Pig Latin…Oh! That would be Yiddish.

Yiddish (ייִדיש, יידיש or אידיש, yidish/idish, literally “Jewish”) is the historical language of the Ashkenazi Jews. It originated during the 9th century in Central Europe, providing the pre-existing language of the nascent Ashkenazi community with an extensive Germanic based vocabulary.

Great. So in my first days at Yeshiva I’d heard English, Yiddish, Hebrew, and even a bit of what is called “Yeshivish.”

Yeshivish (Yiddish: ישיביש), refers to a sociolect of English spoken by Yeshiva students and other Jews with a strong connection to the Orthodox Yeshiva world.

A sociolect?!! Guess what I did upon getting home every night during those first weeks. Yep. I walked the animals, fed the animals, spoke sweet nothings to the animals, then went to bed. I was in a full-on language immersion program that I didn’t see coming.


Thankfully, between my love of words and my love of being thrown into uncomfortable situations (not), I knew how to handle the situation. I became SpongeBobJewishSkirt. I let my brain totally relax and I let the stimuli rush in without fixating on any of it. I let my ears get used to the sounds, I let context give definition to strange words, I asked for explanations but even then I let the answers wash over me like water in the shower. And before long, I had adjusted. My head had wrapped around these new beautiful words and made a home for them in the synaptic connections of my brain. I was used to looking frum, I was passable as an unmarried Orthodox Jewish woman, and I was no longer afraid to answer the phone.


One thought on “Please Don’t Make Me Answer the Phone!

  1. Erin — I love these posts! I’m fascinated with Yiddish, and you’re giving me a front-row seat of what goes on in a world I’ve never had access to! Need to ask you some questions that have arisen as I pass the same orthodox women at the lake for the fith year in a row…will send you a private message so as not to embarrrass myself with my Hebrew ignorance. Keep writing!

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